Good Khan, Bad Khan

John Man’s book on the warrior king Genghis Khan tries hard to make a leadership guru out of him. And falls flat
The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan | John Man | Bantam Books | 184 Pages | Rs 450

Nice try, Mr John Man. If only it were this easy: nominate a Khan of your own choice as the new conqueror of hearts and minds, and leaders will take the cue. It won’t happen, not with Genghis Khan installed as the guru.

Man’s latest work of nominal non-fiction begins earnestly enough. The Mongol conqueror’s great feat of genius, he writes, was his defiance of the Peter’s Principle (which holds that careers are designed to promote everyone to his or her level of incompetence, and no further, thus ensuring that incompetents are in charge of everything). If so, then what Genghis escaped in his own super successful lifetime (1162-1227), he finally succumbs to in this book—because of Man’s attempt to thrust gurudom upon him.

‘Know your limitations’ is ‘Secret 6’. It seems Genghis put this wisdom to practice by getting someone who was actually literate to pen his hagiography (Man’s main research source too); just think of all the corporate chiefs who’ll be jolted by this flash of revelation into firing off Blackberry memos to have the job outsourced exactly so. The rest of the leadership secrets involve controlling messages, rewarding loyalty, taking criticism (from Mom), keeping promises (threats especially) and upholding a vision that’s worthy of an empire builder for whom the massacre of a million odd people along the way is no big deal, or at least ‘nothing personal’.

To Man, this impersonal approach is the stuff of advanced leadership. ‘It is not loyalty to a particular lord and master that Genghis upholds,’ he says, ‘it is loyalty to the idea of loyalty.’ For this, mankind is expected to be eternally grateful—‘It is this thought that, in mature democracies, lies behind loyalty to the idea of democracy.’

Oh yeah? By this token, how about devotion to the idea of demagoguery? Man-made or Genghis-made, ideas are ideas... they rule, right? Either way, to a writer so sold on the idea of drawing false analogies, so unsheepish in shielding his polemics from the truth, and so severely shrinkwrapped by the tint of his own cling-film, this sort of criticism would make little difference.

To be fair, Man’s book is not utterly useless. It does explain how the Mongols’ origin as nomads fanning across Asia’s open grasslands turned them into such fearsome warriors. It’s just that by the time these hordes veered around to war strategies worthy of any serious study down the ages, Genghis Khan had long been consigned to ancestral memory. These were strategies devised by warriors who saw books as things to saddlebag horses with, not flush down the river.

Book Buzz 25 April 2009 - 1 May 2009
  • Cappuccino Dusk
    Kankana Basu|Harper Collins|297 pages|Rs 295

    A typical Bengali family moves from Kolkata to Mumbai, bag and baggage, Rabindra Sangeet and Bengali Brahmin middle-class family values in tow. As the title suggests, much of the book is centred around evening conversations that take place over coffee in this open house. The four siblings in the household and some of their friends form the main characters in the book. This is how Basu has sketched them: the eldest son, who is burdened with responsibilities after their father’s death; the staunch feminist daughter; and the twins, a dim-witted girl and her brother. At some or the other point in the narrative, all the characters form amorous couples, and even a love triangle to accommodate the odd number. The attempted action sequence is completely misplaced. This is an easy read with nothing new to offer. Read it if you must, or if you want a crash course in assumed Bengaliness. But taking your friends out for a cup of cappuccino might be a better option.

  • Old Man and the Sea (Audio Book)
    Ernest Hemingway|Read by Donald Sutherland|Simon & Schuster|3 hours|$20

    For those who haven’t read this Hemingway classic and find themselves twiddling their thumbs in traffic every day, this audio book is a great way to experience it. For those who’ve already read it, Donald Sutherland liberates the highly visual nature of the writing, whetting your imagination in a way reading it yourself never could. Provided, of course, that you can bear his American accent. The plot is simple. After a bout of bad fishing luck, Old Man goes deep into the sea in search of the biggest catch of his life. And he does find a deserving opponent to battle with. The fact that it’s a single-person narrative—told from the old man’s perspective—makes for powerful listening. The brotherhood he feels for his enemy, his willingness to die in the hands of a worthy foe—it’s enough to engage even the half-hearted listener. Unexpectedly, Sutherland has none of the melodrama and shift in pace one would have expected of the story. He does understated justice to the text, and lets the words speak, not his personality.

  • A Queer Magazine

    ‘A New Spring for India’s Gay Movement’, declares the flamboyant cover of Bombay Dost (Volume 1, 2009, Rs 150). India’s first registered gay community magazine is back on the stands after seven years, with some financial help from the UNDP. The cover would have benefited from some restraint, but it mirrors the optimism that has suddenly taken hold of gay Indians.
    When activist Ashok Row Kawi first published BD in 1990, it was a ‘how-to’ lifeline for folks who were otherwise invisible. One article counselled and taught readers to hire a post-box to protect their communiqué.
    Though the design of the half-yearly still makes it look like contraband, the pragmatism isn’t overt now. There is some intellectual hot air, but the best bits are contemporary and relevant, with young writers talking about gay desi marriage, being bisexual in Delhi, and gay pageantry.
    The fact that BD is now available in urban bookstores, and was launched by a Bollywood actress (Celina Jaitley) during a cantankerous Mumbai press conference, says as much about the magazine as it does about being gay in 21st century India.